The Cambridgeshire sundial trail
This list was originally compiled by the Margaret Stanier, who is the author of Cambridge Sundials which gives colour photographs and descriptions of 19 dials in the City of Cambridge, and 4 others nearby. Some useful additions have been kindly suggested by others.
Cambridge is rich in sundials, some ancient, some very modern. Sundials have been much used in recent years as commemorative gifts, recording an event, a person or an occasion. So although sundials are being lost through neglect or weathering, new ones are appearing. The selection for this review has been made by thought for historic interest, beauty of style or ingenuity of design; and also by consideration of accessibility and visibility by members of the public.
The main towns of the county - Cambridge, Ely, Peterborough and Wisbech - have contributed many notable dials to the
Sundial Society's Register. But smaller towns and villages, even roadsides, have also provided treasures for my list.
If you wish to visit all the sundials on the list, you could start at the NW corner of the county at Peterborough, where you can visit the Cathedral as well as the Guildhall. The head westward to Wisbech, and look at North Brink and Peckover House, a lovely dwelling in the care of the National Trust. Then drive south to Ely (Cathedral) and on towards Cambridge. The University Observatory is on the northern edge of the city. In the City Centre are the Colleges - Magdalene, Kings, Gonville & Caius, and also St. Botolph's Church. If you take the Barton Road A603 out to the west, you can turn NW in Barton village, through Comberton and Toft, viewing the Meridian Line at the Roadside. Then head westwards through St. Neot's to Staughton Highway.
The National Grid references are given to help you find them.
Those who succeed in penetrating the seemingly endless outer suburbs, complicated road network and swirling traffic round the edge of Peterborough will be happy to find themselves at the still centre, the heart of the city, in Cathedral Square, a calm pedestrian precinct with much of interest. As you stand looking north you see to your right (eastwards) the arches through which you enter the Cathedral Close. To your left is the noble church of St. John's, and near its east end stands a curious building, rows of pillars forming an arcade, supporting an upper room. This building dating from 1671 is called the Guildhall, or sometimes the Buttermarket since the local farmers' wives brought their produce for sale here, among the pillars. The upper room has been used as a magistrates' court, a schoolroom, and the town clerk's office.
On the south wall of the Guildhall is a delightful sundial, with clear lines and numerals easy to read and in good condition. The rising sun above the dial face and the appropriate motto 'Resurgam' (I shall rise again) form a well-constructed design. The dial dates from 1707. (TL 191994)
Ely: The Cathedral
Visitors to Ely Cathedral should find their way to the outer side of the south wall. High on the wall to the east of the south door is a sundial. The dial face declines slightly west, so more afternoon hours than morning hours are marked. The half-hours are marked by crosses.
The motto in Greek above the dial face means "Know the (appropriate) time" or "Choose the timely moment". The date of the sundial is unknown. There are records of its restoration but not of its original setting-up. (TL 541801)
Cambridge: Pembroke College
Cambridge: St. Botolph's Church
As the visitor walks south along King's Parade he will find on his left the tower of St. Botolph's Church, and the west door into the church down some steps from the pavement. High on the SW buttress of this tower is a pair of vertical sundials, one facing due south, the other southwest. Its clear numerals and well cut hour lines, with half-hours and quarters marked, make it easy to read from street level. The date of this dial is unknown. It replaces a much earlier dial on St. Botolph's Church which was designed by a Mr. Butterfield and repainted in 1614 at a cost of 18 pence, but the precise position of this earlier dial is unknown. Timekeeping is important to travellers, and it is appropriate that a church in this position, close to the site of old Trumpington Gate of the City on the main road to London, should have this fine readable dial. (TL 448 581)
Cambridge: Queens' College
The original gatehouse of Queens' College is in Queens' Lane, off Silver Street. In Old Court, above the passage to the Old Chapel, and below the clock tower, is a large wall dial with intricate and colourful markings yielding time, date, sign of zodiac, elevation of the sun, and so on. It was first constructed in 1642, and decorated in its current style certainly by 1733. A table underneath provides the moon's hour-angle for each day of the lunar cycle, enabling the dial to be used as a moon-dial. There is a picture of this dial at [TL 447 581]
Cambridge: King's College
There is a wall-dial on the south wall of the Chapel of King's College just to the east of the south door. The hour lines and Roman numerals in black are painted directly onto the stone dial plate, and so also is the motto above "Ut hora sic fugit vita" (Life flies away like an hour). The gold sunburst at the root of the gnomon and the pair of heraldic lions make the dial a handsome spectacle. But there is a mystery about this dial. Who was J.C.? And what is the significance of the date 1573? The archives of the College seem to provide no clue. (TL 447584)
Cambridge: Gonville & Caius College
Above the Gate of Honour leading from the court of Caius into Senate House Passage is a magnificent 6-faced vertical sundial - in effect, a set of 6 separate dials. The dial faces are cast bronze, painted with black, blue and gold vitreous enamel. The precision of the lines, the restrained colouring, and the clarity and simplicity of the design, make this dial a delight to see and to read.
The dial, though in the position of an earlier one placed on this 6-sided column above the gate, dates only from 1963. It was part of an extensive restoration of College buildings undertaken to commemorate the fourth centenary of the re-founding of the college by Dr. Caius in 1557. Two Fellows of the College, Dr. Powell and Dr. Message, were closely concerned with the design and lay-out. The casting of the dial plates was carried out by Birmingham Guild Ltd. There is a picture of this dial at (TL 48585)
Cambridge: Magdalene College
High on a brick wall overlooking Benson Court (an annexe of Magdalene College on the west side of Bridge Street) you will see a 'double vertical' dial. The two faces are made of grey slate, inscribed with curved hour-lines. The gnomon above each dial face is of the 'pinhole' type: a sunburst disc, pierced with a central hole, is carried on an arm above the dial face; and a light-spot formed by the passage of sunlight through the central hole is seen falling among the hour-lines in the shadow of the disc. The motto below, from Seneca, means "It is easier to gain agreement among philosophers than among timepieces".
The two dial faces, relating to the first and the second half-year, were designed to separate the sets of hour-lines, to facilitate reading. In summer when the sun is high in the sky, the light-spot falls near the bottom of the lines; conversely, in the winter months it falls near the upper ends of the lines. The curvature of the hour lines allows the equation-of-time correction to be built into the design.
The dial was computer-designed by an undergraduate of Magdalene College, Mr. W.F. Ng, from Hong Kong, in 1986. Much of the making was carried out in the University Engineering Department. (TL 446590)
Wisbech is a small market town in the north of the county, at the edge of the fens. Its parish church, the Church of SS Peter & Paul, is built in a curious hotchpotch of architectural styles, having been erected and destroyed, altered and extended, many times over the years. Over the south door of the porch there is a fine dial inscribed on Ketton limestone, dating from 1993. The motto 'Pereunt et Imputantur' is a favourite of classical diallists. It is a tag from Martial, a Roman poet of the first century A.D. '(The days) pass away and are set down to (our) charge'.
This dial was made as a replacement for an older one of marble, contemporary with the pediment and side pillars of the dial face, probably eighteenth century. The marble dial shattered during an attempted repair. At the time of replacement the opportunity was taken of recalculating the hour lines with greater accuracy. (TF 463096)
A handsomely inscribed tablet of grey slate stands on the verge of a country road, the B1046, between the villages of Comberton and Toft, some 5 miles west of the City of Cambridge. The tablet was placed in 1984 to mark the centenary of the International Meridian Conference, at which the Greenwich Meridian was agreed as the Prime meridian for cartographers and navigators worldwide. The tablet shows an outline map of Great Britain marking 0* longitude. The sloping top of the buttress in front of the tablet forms the gnomon of a sundial. The buttress enables the observer to view the sundial with one foot placed in each of the earth's hemispheres.
The dial was commissioned by the Meridian School in Comberton and made by Quin Hollick. (TL 366560)
Beside the main A45 road about 5 miles NW of St. Neot's there stands a stone cube, surmounted by a stone ball, on a fluted shaft. The faces of the cube carry sundials, S, E, and W. On the north face is the date, 1637, and the initials of the original owner, Edmund Ibbott, who lived in the village and owned a carpentry business. The shaft carrying the dial was originally part of the village cross. The dials are readable though not in good condition.
Edmund Ibbott appears to have been a man of some status, but there is no record of how his sundial come to be placed in the village street. (TL 131647)
Cambridge: Royal Greenwich Observatory Sundial
(This much-travelled sundial was included in this page when originally written, but it has since been moved back to urstmonceux Castle in Sussex.) A remarkable modern sundial is to be found in the grounds of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Madingley Road, Cambridge. It is a reclining equatorial design. A large ring of stainless steel bearing the hour-lines and numerals reclines at the latitude angle to the horizontal, and a steel bar forms the diameter of the circle. A slender vertically standing rod forms the gnomon; it is carried on a collar on the diameter bar, adjustable to move up and down the bar according to date. A member of the R.G.O.'s staff adjusts the gnomon each week or thereabouts.
The dial was designed in 1975 by Gordon Taylor, then a member of the staff of the R.G.O., to celebrate the third centenary of the founding of the Observatory in 1675. It was erected at Herstmonceux in Sussex where the R.G.O. was then situated. When the Observatory was moved to its present site in 1990, the sundial came with it. The plinth on which it now stands has been constructed to slope at an angle of 1* to the horizontal, to compensate for the difference in latitude between Herstmonceux and Cambridge. (TL 431596)